Names: Janet Robertson and Jo Croft
Years together: 20
Occupations: Former theatre director and arts administrator
“In the worst moment, we still know how to have a waltz in the psych ward,” says Janet Robertson, sharing a laugh with partner Jo Croft. They’ve been together for more than 20 years, through the best of times and the worst of times, and their commitment to each other remains unshakeable.
The pair met in the late 90s when both were working in the arts. They were both coming out of strained relationships and there was a mutual attraction, although it was Jo who pursued Janet. Jo remembers: “‘[She said] ‘No, this isn’t going to work. You’re too young, I’m just coming out of a relationship,’ and I’m like, ‘No it will work, I know you’re the one for me.’” There’s an age difference of 14 years and Janet was hesitant: “I was very concerned about screwing up Jo’s time because Jo seemed to be very sincere and honest about what she wanted and I didn’t want to stuff her around.”
Jo remained undeterred: “[I was drawn to] her really positive energy, her curiosity is something that continues to amaze me.”
Janet describes Jo as “this extraordinary sprite” with many contrasts. She adds: “There was Party Jo and then there was the same pixie [who was] working really seriously at the Australia Council and later on with Apac [who was] extremely dedicated and diligent.”
Things were on-again, off-again for some time but when Janet came back from a stint overseas, she moved into Jo’s sharehouse.
In 2000, they moved into a small flat overlooking Sydney Harbour. It was a significant year for the pair. As the city celebrated the Olympics, they worked hard and played hard. But there was also a series of family deaths that shook them deeply. Supporting each other through their grief drew them closer together: “When death happens at an early stage of the relationship, you will actually cement the foundation, or you won’t have a foundation and the relationship will drift apart,” Janet says. “You have deep conversations.”
Those early years were happy for both. They collaborated on artistic work and travelled the world together. It did take time for Janet to feel secure: “For the first five years I was worried because there is an age difference and I think you have to be responsible for not being a parent and teacher. Jo has so much to teach me and if I wasn’t incredibly curious about stuff as opposed to, ‘Oh yeah, I know that,’ [it may not have worked] … We were very different, so we could give each other advice … I saw Jo’s skills at doing things that I just had no access to.”
Their personalities are different but complementary: Jo is quiet and reserved while Janet is outgoing and talkative. And there’s rarely any conflict between them: “When I get pissed off and I’m sternly talking to Janet, she just laughs. And when she giggles, I start giggling and so it dissipates the issue,” Jo says.
Both say honesty is a fundamental part of their relationship: “When you tell someone you’re ashamed of something you’ve done in the past and they let you forgive yourself or they don’t shame you, I think that’s extraordinary,” Janet says. Jo agrees: “There’s no judgment by either of us.”
Once the relationship was cemented, Jo shared her battle with mental health with her partner. She suffers from bipolar disorder and suicidal ideation. Janet encouraged her to seek help from a therapist, which she did: “I think that was the turning point, if I didn’t try and heal Jo, I didn’t try and take responsibility, I went, ‘That’s quite a big thing.’”
For a while, things went well. They moved out of Sydney and seeing a therapist helped Jo as the couple navigated life together, working hard to remain connected: “Sharing my experience with Janet [helped] so there’s not a wall or a box around each other or myself,” says Jo.
But over time, Jo’s mental health declined. “My mental illness is a big challenge to our relationship,” she says now, “and I am so grateful, appreciative and fortunate that I have Janet as my advocate, as a carer, as a partner.”
Things came to a head one night when Janet came home to find Jo experiencing a manic episode. She contacted Jo’s psychiatrist and they were at the hospital first thing the next morning. “Jo burst out of a room at the Royal North Shore [hospital], going ‘I’ve been scheduled’ and life just went, ‘boom’,” Janet says.
The next few years were very difficult: “As a partner, I am an advocate, a pain in the arse to some doctors, and a witness to Jo’s personal trauma,” Janet says, adding “some of that I’m not witness to.”
Janet tried to help where she could: “When Jo was at her worst, in the early days when neither of us knew what was really going on, I just told her, ‘Blink, it’s going to be over. Blink, this time will pass. Just blink, it’s finished. It’s a moment.’”
Janet dealt with the crisis by researching and learning as much as she could about bipolar disorder. Seeking help outside of the relationship was important, she says: “You’ve got to be willing to not just go, ‘well, let’s see how we go together,’ because we would be melted on the floor by now if we relied on our own skills.” Janet and Jo recommend support organisations such as the 24-hour counselling service Suicide Callback Service and the US organisation To Write Love on Her Arms.
Eventually, Jo was discharged and Janet became her full-time carer. It’s difficult for both, but they’ve coped with it in the only way they know: “Janet brings a lot of creativity to our relationship in the way she does things, in the way she tells stories, in the way she looks at the world. I think that keeps us together,” Jo says with a smile.
As things settled, the couple also started to rediscover their faith. They had both been Christians when they were in their teens but had left the church when they came out. They started to attend a church in Austinmer. “As feminists and lesbians we had no illusions about the church,” Janet says. “We were open and [the churchgoers] were straightforward … We received grace, along with active, open, healthy discussions. Both sides listened and grew.” She adds: “On a bad day I still don’t know about God, but I have received some unconditional love outside our relationship that has strengthened us individually.”
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing since that time, and Janet appreciates the support she received from that community: “I was picked up from hospitals at three and four in the morning from Wollongong when we were living in Thirroul and I could put [a call out] on Facebook [saying] Jo’s got to go in the hospital suddenly and someone I barely knew would pick us up.”
Over time, Jo has improved, although it’s an ongoing battle. She recently checked herself into hospital to help her to come off some of her medication. “I was overloaded with medication and I was very numb, very wooden. I’ve stripped away a lot of those drugs now, I’ve just got a few that I’m taking now and I am thinking more, I am talking more, I am more responsive to things. It’s good.” When we speak, she’s out of hospital and continues to receive treatment.
A year ago, the couple exchanged rings. Marriage is not for them but they wanted to mark their 20 years together. “We witnessed to each other that we have survived,” Janet says.
Love and laughter has kept them strong. “Every now and then I’ll turn and look at Jo while she’s asleep or while she’s playing solitaire and my heart swells with love,” says Janet. They dote on each other when they can: “Jo really cares for me when she’s out of hospital, I get really looked after and I like to luxuriate in it because I’m a sensualist and there’s a lot of care,” Janet says.
Showing each other respect and old-fashioned manners helps too: “We thank each other, we say please, we say goodnight. It’s honest, it’s sincere,” Jo says. And there are plenty of hugs too.
She adds: “It hasn’t been a bed of roses and it will probably not continue to be [but] I trust Janet so innately and don’t have to question her commitment.” Their time together has made them strong, says Janet: “There was some foundation of trust that was laid down [in the beginning] and it hasn’t been broken.”
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